Migrant hunting, smuggling on Yemen-Saudi border
By Tom Finn
HARADH, Yemen | Wed May 30, 2012 10:36am EDT
(Reuters) - Unfastening his grubby sling, Ali Yusef let out a gasp as his
mangled forearm dropped limply to his side. Jumping out of a speeding
pick-up truck to evade kidnappers last week, the young Ethiopian was lucky
to get away with only a broken arm.
Yusef is one of thousands of Ethiopians lured by the promise of a better
life in wealthy oil-rich Gulf Arab states who have found themselves trapped
in a lawless and violent stretch of territory on the Yemeni side of the
border with <http://www.reuters.com/places/saudi-arabia
> Saudi Arabia.
"It (jumping) was worth the risk," said Yusef, showing the blisters on his
palms. "I'd rather die than let them catch me."
Plagued by sandstorms, drought, gun runners and drug smugglers, the 1,800-km
(1,100-mile) strip of land along the Yemeni-Saudi border has long been a
desolate, dangerous place.
But crumbling government control and a surge of migrants, driven out of the
Horn of Africa by drought, poverty and persecution, have turned it into a
kind of hell where criminal gangs roam freely, trading migrants like
Aid workers in Haradh, a smugglers' outpost on the border, say that the
kidnapping of migrants for ransom is now common practice.
"Kidnap, robbery, sexual abuse, it's part of everyday life here," said Ali
Al-Jafri, a logistics officer from the International Organization for
Migration (IOM), which runs a camp in Haradh for 3,000 Ethiopians awaiting
"It's become a business, an industry in itself."
Exploiting the chaos in the country after mass protests forced President Ali
Abdullah Saleh to step down after 33 years in office, more than 103,000 men
and women crossed the Red Sea into Yemen in 2011 - double the previous
year's figure, according to the U.N. Refugee Agency (UNHCR).
The increased numbers are part of an exodus from the Horn of Africa that the
UNHCR and IOM say represents one of the largest flows of economic refugees
"What you see in Yemen is just the tip of the iceberg," said Yacoub El
Hillo, the director of the UNHCR's Bureau for the Middle East and North
"This is a lucrative business, it is a criminal business, and it is
Chris Horwood, director of the Nairobi-based Mixed Migration Secretariat,
said the kidnapping racket is already well established in the Sinai and more
recently in eastern Sudan.
"We are calling it the 'commoditization' of migrants," Horwood said.
"It is a lucrative, underground cash-cow. The proliferation of mobile phone
networks and money transfer systems that so assist migrants to communicate
and fund their journeys have become a curse used by criminals to extort what
little the poorest have left."
About 75 percent of the migrants who come to Yemen are Ethiopians, most
heading to wealthy Gulf Arab states, especially Saudi Arabia, in search of
Hussein Regin Suri, a stick-thin Ethiopian in flip-flops trudging along a
coastal road toward the Saudi border, said he had left his wife, job and
nine-month-old child behind in Addis Ababa.
"What I earn in two months teaching in Ethiopia, my brother makes in a week
chopping vegetables in Riyadh," Suri said.
For most in Yemen - a country with the highest rate of chronic child
malnutrition after <http://www.reuters.com/places/afghanistan
- the migrants are a burden, another competitor in an already fierce scrap
for limited resources.
Criminal gangs have scented opportunity, however. They snatch migrants from
the roadside and detain and torture them to extract payment from their
Nineteen-year-old Aisha Saeed Indris relates how her captors pressed lit
cigarettes into her forearm to get her father's telephone number after they
bought her from a Yemeni border patrol.
"They poured liniment in my eyes. Then they beat me all over my body with a
metal chain," Indris told Reuters in a Haradh hospital where she was
receiving treatment for her injuries.
"They took it in turns," she said, her voice faltering. "One of them held me
down while the other raped me. Then they called my father in Ethiopia and
told him that if he didn't wire them money, they'd shoot me."
It was only when a fellow migrant escaped and informed the police of her
whereabouts that Indris was released.
LIKE FIGHTING AN INSURGENCY
Rattled by the flow of illegal immigrants, drugs and weapons, Saudi
authorities have invested billions of dollars shoring up the border over the
Construction of a 75-km (45-mile) iron fence commenced in 2008. Floodlights,
thermal cameras and electric wires have all made the crossing more perilous
Sometimes, migrants say, Saudi border guards resort to brute force to repel
those trying to sneak across the border into the kingdom in search of work.
The damp floor of a rundown hospital in Haradh is where many of those who
attempt the journey end up. One man named Yusuf hoisted up yellow shorts to
reveal a pair of bulging pink scars running up the backs of his thighs.
After shooting him in the legs, he said, Saudi patrolmen slung him in the
back of a truck, drove him across the border and left him in a ditch under
the baking sun. If not for a Yemeni farmer who found him and took him to the
clinic, he would have died.
Yemeni officials are frustrated by the Saudi policy of ditching the would-be
migrants they apprehend back across the border.
"The Saudis are a thousand times richer than us, they're supposed to build
camps, repatriate them to their home countries," said Ibrahim Zaydaan, an
official from Yemen's Ministry of Human Rights, who is tasked with
documenting migrant abuse. "But instead they just shove them back over the
"It's like trying to dam a fast-moving river - in the short term you stop
some water getting through, but eventually it's going to overflow."
A spokesman for the Saudi Interior Ministry said half a million people try
to sneak into the country annually, and that border guards only open fire
when they were fired upon.
"Our border security system is no different from other countries ... Those
who arrive are sent back to where they came from," said the spokesman.
On Yemen's side of the border a climate of collusion and low political will
to apprehend and prosecute smugglers is allowing the trade and abuse of
migrants to flourish.
Ahmed, a military officer from Haradh who would only give his first name, is
one of a handful of Yemeni security officials who have made a fortune
helping smugglers move Africans into the world's top oil exporter.
In a country where more than 40 percent of the people live on less than two
dollars a day, Ahmed's coordination with smugglers earns him around $20,000
Asked whether he runs into trouble moving migrants through government
checkpoints, he laughed: "What checkpoints? This country is run by tribes
not policemen: these people are my friends."
The Defense Ministry refuses to comment on the matter. But local authorities
in Haradh say there is collusion between Yemeni border guards and smugglers
but say they are overwhelmed, lacking both the authority and firepower to
flush the smugglers out.
"Is there facilitation? Of course there's facilitation. I have no control
over the border guards, they are under the Ministry of Defense," said
Colonel Mohammed Ahmed Najd, Chief of Police for Haradh district.
"When we raid the smugglers' houses we face fierce resistance and shootouts.
It's like fighting an insurgency," he said. "As long as these people keep
arriving the smugglers will keep taking them. There is nothing we can do."
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Received on Wed May 30 2012 - 14:43:07 EDT